Cotton Abbey

The mystery surrounding the location of the site of the original Cistercian abbey at Cotton (or the Abbey of the Vale of St. Mary of Cotton) in Staffordshire is something I have been interested in for many years following a walk one summers evening with my Dad who showed me the site of the abbey.

Ever since I have been aware of the magnificence of the remains of the abbey’s successor at Croxden, I have been intrigued by the fact that the monks who founded this great place originally settled here in Cotton, the parish in which I grew up. Further information on Croxden can be found here https://famouspastwords.co.uk/2020/02/19/croxden-abbey/

Croxden abbey – the magnificent west entrance

This small Staffordshire Moorlands hamlet is nestled within the Churnet valley, a few miles from Cauldon Lowe, up the bank from Oakamoor and two miles from the ancient village of Alton.

Cotton Banks

My family can be traced back centuries from this place and I can fondly recall the happiest of my childhood memories playing with my family on Cotton Banks or walking within the nearby Dell nature reserve within this beautiful, peaceful green valley.

It is as if Dylan Thomas himself was describing my childhood around Cotton and Cauldon Lowe in his famous poem, Fern Hill.

Indeed this title is an apt description for many of the surrounding footpaths, and for the most probable site of the abbey itself.

Time let me hail and climb, Golden in the heydays of his eyes

Overlooking the valley toward Cotton College

I have researched the subject and some time ago I discovered an excellent discourse by F.G. Roberts, a Housmaster at Cotton College written sometime around the 1950s.

The story begins with local landowner and benefactor, Bertram de Verdun, Lord of Alveton (which we now know as Alton), having seen the Cistercian abbey at Alnet (Aunay) in Normandy, it is said that he was so impressed that he asked the monks there to establish an abbey on his land in Staffordshire.

In the year of Our Lord, 1176, Bertram de Verdun, for the salvation of his soul, by the grace of God, and for the redemption of his beloved ones, gave land at Cotton to the monks of Alnet for the foundation of an abbey in the valley of Saint Mary, but he who wisely disposes all things ordained that they should praise the name of the Lord in another place.

Dodsworth and Dugdale’s Monasticon, (in translation) published in Latin in 1655.
Style into the woods within the valley – were these ancient stones used as part of the abbey?

The Abbot there sent some monks, under an Englishman, Thomas of Mioodstock, who was as yet only a deacon, but who was elected first abbot of Cotton on the feast of Pentecost, 1178.

The only other mention of the abbey at Cotton is that of the departure of the community – ‘A.D. 1179 the abbey came from Cotton to Croxden.’

Owls Clough – another curious stone lies in this field which is a few hundred yards down the valley from the Shamchurch field

The ruins of Croxden are still there for all to see, but the site of the original abbey at Cotton is not definitely known and to this day remain a mystery.

Mr W. H. Grattan-Flood, then a master at Cotton College, wrote several articles on Croxden Abbey in The Month in 1892-93.

In the winter of 1176, the little colony of Cistercians arrived at Alton, and were given a goodly portion of land at Cotton, not far from St Wilfrid’s College. So well did these zealous pioneers of agriculture labour that very soon an abbey rose up among the bleak moorland surroundings. The Cistercians left Cotton early in 1179, and removed to Croxden, about five miles distant, with the full consent of the noble founder.

W. H. Grattan-Flood, The Month 1892-93

the shamchurch theory

Two possible sites have been suggested for this abbey. The first, and traditional one, is that it was in a field on the opposite side of the valley from the College, between Owls’ Clough and Cotton Bank farms.

The winding footpath along the valley to the side of the Wood headed toward the Shamchurch site,

The field is called Shamchurch, said to be a corruption of Shaw Church, the church in, or by, the wood. There has certainly been a building there – the rough state of the ground and a number of hummocks prove that beyond a doubt, and a large remnant of a wall standing around 5 feet high remains resolute within the undergrowth in the middle of the field.

The surviving stone structure at Shamchurch (March 2020)

It could not have been a very large building, but if it really was the abbey church, it is possible that it was the only stone building to be erected, the rest being of wood, of which there is an abundance. The wall that leads down into the Dell past the two farms contains many cut stones, quite unlike the usual rough drystone work of the district. Built into a wall at Owls’ Clough is a hollowed-out stone that may well have been a holy water stoup.

Drainage gulley within the stone structure at Shamchurch

Objections have been raised that the Cistercians could not have built in stone in the short time they were at Cotton – these objections are ruled out by the fact that the new abbey at Croxden was dedicated in 1181, only two years after the removal from Cotton.

Stones behind abandoned remnants of farming machinery

It is possible that these stones are the remains of a barn or smallholding as there is also an abandoned piece of 20th century farm machinery next to the remains. If this is the case then it is possible that the stones used to build this were indeed the original stones used in the construction of abbey buildings, most likely the church.

The slopes of the sham church field – was it here that in 1176 the Cistercians arrived and began to build their religious community in this field?
The Shamchurch site looking up the incline (taken on an overcast day in early March 2020)

On my latest walk I did notice an abundance of stones within this particular field and the surrounding ones, together with stones which make up parts of the enclosing dry stone walls, that are fairly unusual in their appearance. This begs the question of how they got here and are they in some way connected with the ancient abbey.

A large, curious stone making up a segment in the wall bordering one of the surrounding fields at the Shamchurch site. This stone looks to be thousands of years old and could have had many uses in the time of the Cistercians

The main issue with the Shamchurch theory is the site itself, which is steeply sloping, while there is much more level ground on the other side of the valley, though it is considerably wetter.

Across the valley toward the sloped sham church field

Alternative suggestions

The second theory, put forward by Father Gosling of Alton, was that the level ground near the Star Inn, by Adam’s Pools on the Alton Road, seems, at first sight, to be far more likely. Adam’s Pools are obviously artificial and have no recorded origin (Adam himself was Adam Ratcliffe, a semi-hermit of the last century, who lived in a mud hut by the pools and made some sort of living by wheeling barrow loads of coal up from Oakamoor at sixpence a load).

These pools could have been stewponds made by the monks.

This curious stone structure stands in the overgrowth within the wetland area on the other side of the valley to Shamchurch. Could stones used here be originally from the abbey building?

it is true that both buildings and pools may be something to do with the blast furnace which is known to have stood until about 1800 on the site of the second house down the lane by the pools, occupied for many years by the Collier family.

This blast furnace is said to have given the local pub, the Star Inn its name. Incidentally the present Star Inn is not the original one, which still stands as a farm-house – it is the first house, on the right, down the lane already mentioned, which is the old road to Oakamoor.

It was called ‘The Blazing Star’ from the light which glowed from the nearby furnace. Canon Buscot, who was a parish priest, thought that it must have been, even further back in pre-Reformation times, the ‘Star of Bethlehem’.

A stone found in the field across the valley from sham church which was clearly used by human hands for some purpose with a distinctive ridge cut along it. It could be speculated that this was something to do with the Abbey or dates from around this time.

Whilst walking within these fields I encountered perhaps the best alternate suggestion for the site in a field adjacent to the footpath which takes you down into the valley on the side next to Cotton lane. This would have always been the main thoroughfare through the place and this space was on a natural, flat ridge and would have had easy access to both the aforementioned pools. The site nowadays does not appear to be particularly wet but whether that was the case some eight and a half centuries ago is anybody’s guess. There are also curious, worked stones dotted around this field and it is in close proximity to the curious building which sits below the dwelling on this side of the valley, below the Star location.

This spot is, in my opinion, a plausible location for the abbey. Whilst it is on the other side of the valley from the site known as Shamchurch that is generally regarded as the true site of the abbey, this place is a far more suitable location with a flatter landscape and easy access to a nearby pool which may have been a monastic pond

If the Cistercians really did put up a stone church, there was certainly plenty of stone at hand and there is widespread evidence of its having been quarried locally. Such a building would have remained after the monks left and would almost certainly have been occupied.

The thickness of the moss on the stones around the site shows how long they have been left in situ here

In view of the Cistercian reputation of picking the best sites for their abbeys, it is possible that the site would continue to be occupied, even though from time to time new buildings were erected to replace the old. The best building site in the whole valley is the one on which the College stands. Is it possible that this is really the site of the abbey? 

Unfortunately there is no evidence in favour of this theory. But there is the possibility that Cotton Hall was the development of a series of buildings on the site. There is a large stone built into the college cellar which bears the initials and date W.M. 1630 E.M. The stone now serves as a shelf and the inscription is on the under-side, which suggests that it may be part of an earlier building incorporated when the Hall as we know it was built. Who W.M. and E.M. were remains a mystery. There are two other cottages within a short distance which bear the dates 1622 and 1625, showing that there was quite a lot of building activity hereabouts at the time. Even so, it does not take us back further than 1630.

Moss laden, ancient dry stone wall. The very large boulder was likely an ancient way marker used for various purposes over thousands of years

The gap between 1179 and 1630 presents difficulties that may never be solved, the more so as the Hall was never one of the great houses and is barely mentioned in the various old histories of the county. The site certainly had plenty of timber and water. The hills to the north and east are, and presumably always were, full of water.

Up into the wooded area about 500 yards from the Shamchurch site there is a large, natural rock formation which would have undoubtedly been familiar to the monks

The college swimming pools were constructed by building a concrete floor and walls to a pool which was originally a stream dammed by a clay bank at some remote period. Both this pool and the old bathing pool in the Dell could have been monastic fishponds. The former could have served only the Hall site, while the latter could have done equally well for the Hall and the Shamchurch sites.

College swimming pool

On the other hand, the second one may have been one of those sheets of ornamental water so dear to the eighteenth century landowner.

Curious marks on stones located at the Shamchurch site. Could these have been parts of the original abbey buildings?

As Roberts writes ‘It is all a very vexed question’ and, much as one would like to prove the Hall theory the right one, it seems on the whole that the most probable site of the abbey was the traditional one in Shamchurch field.

Cotton Dell
At the bottom of the steep sided valley below – Cotton Dell nature reserve

We do not know how much land Earl Bertram gave the monks, or where it was – but we know that they moved within a short time, and the chances are that the move was made because the site was a bad one.

A magical fairy guarding Owl’s Clough

The Annals of Croxden Abbey show no traces of the monks continuing to own land at Cotton itself, but at the dissolution of the abbey, the list of property includes this item – ‘Alton, tenths in Farley and Cotton, £2‘. Oakamoor is mentioned a few times, as are Caldon (or Cauldon) and Waterhouses.

Stone remains at the Shamchurch site

As it remains a mystery, and is likely always to remain so, this is what makes it all the more intriguing. On balance I have to favour the traditional Shamchurch site which, as it turned out, was less then ideal but perhaps it was always with the intention to move on to a better suited location that I believe this is where the abbey once stood and the community lived for those three years on that beautiful remote hillside, 844 years ago.

Remains of a small ancient building. These could be the remains of a barn built on the site of the abbey using original stones or perhaps of the abbey church itself

It is possible that the land reverted to the Earl when the monks moved.

Originally built in Uttoxeter – around 12 miles away.

In 1287 Croxden Abbey did a deal with the monks of Bildewas (Buildwas) in Shropshire, by which the latter abbey gained the Croxden lands in Shropshire and Croxden gained the Buildwas grange at Caldon. This grange of Caldon, on the Weaver Hills, about three miles from Cotton, was a valuable acquisition, as it contained extensive limestone quarries and a marble quarry.

There are still limestone quarries at Caldon Low, but nobody nowa- days seems to know anything about a marble quarry. Caldon mill and other properties in the parish are reckoned among the possessions of Croxden Abbey in the Taxation of Pope Nicholas IV (1288-92).

In the hot seat – well worn seat of the old farm machinery at the site

There is still in existence a farm-house known as Caldon Grange on the far side of the Weaver Hills.

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